Simon Barrow

Easter, Jim Cotter and R. S. Thomas: silent etchings and torn reason

By Simon Barrow
April 18, 2014

It was with great sorrow that I learned of the death of the Rev Jim Cotter in Holy Week. Jim was known to thousands of people through his books, articles, personal struggles, ministry, immense hospitality and generosity, public speaking and spiritual direction over the years. I first met him in the 1980s, and I last spent time with him near the end of his time in Aberdaron, North Wales – at his home and at St Hywyn's Church (with its R. S. Thomas connections), along with family and friends.

Jim died at his new home in Llandudno after a long period of struggle-and-embrace with cancer. He lived courageously and he embraced death in the same way, with a combination of wise acceptance and prudent resistance. He was a support and encouragement to many, and through his writings and recordings he will continue to be so for years to come.

His last book, published by Canterbury Norwich Press towards the end of 2013, was Etched by Silence: A Pilgrimage Through the Poetry of R.S. Thomas. Among other things, many have said that it shines a light on the relation between the lives, faith and struggles of the two men, despite their differences in personality, circumstance and style.

The publisher writes: "This collection of poems by Wales' most famous poet-priest, R. S. Thomas, is interspersed with short reflections and questions for exploration that connect the timeless poetry to the landscape that inspired it.

"Originally produced locally for visitors to the North Wales village and church where R. S. Thomas was the parish priest, its appeal extends to all who know and love the raw honesty and sparse, striking style of the poetry, and whose own faith and questions are mirrored in it.

"Aberdaron still welcomes streams of visitors, R S Thomas aficionados and pilgrims en route to the nearby holy island of Bardsey. This book brings the poetry alive in a fresh way and provides a pilgrim guide to the locality, along with reflections that enable armchair readers everywhere to enter more deeply into the world of the poems. All royalties will continue to go to maintaining the church at Aberdaron."

The other book I would very much like to commend in this connection -- one I know Jim also valued -- is Alison Goodlad's excellent Leaving The Reason Torn: Re-thinking Cross and Resurrection through R. S. Thomas, published by Edinburgh-based small press Shoving Leopard in 2012.

As the blurb (which I confess I wrote!) says: "For many today, the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday raise more questions than solutions. Likewise, people are often unmoved or confused by 'atonement theories' seeking to explain the purpose of Christ's death.

"In this thoughtful and heartfelt book, Alison Goodlad turns from abstract argument to poetic imagination for illumination, finding fresh inspiration in the poems of R. S. Thomas.

"With a Foreword by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, Leaving the Reason Torn offers a compelling exploration of the foundational mysteries of the Christian faith, made real again through the searching words of one of Britain's (specifically Wales') greatest poets.

"The author brings poetry and theology into synthesis, showing how the depths of the biblical witness can be rediscovered through human questioning and experience. Alison Goodlad is a new voice in the overlapping areas of poetry and religious exploration, but one whose work has already been commended by Archbishop Rowan Williams and by biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, among others. She lives in Exeter."

Along with etching in silence (as well as the interstices provided by words and gestures), leaving the reason torn was one of Jim Cotter's great gifts to us all. Tearing is also wounding, something he knew more than a little about. May he rest in the peace of Christ and rise in glory on the day of resurrection. Bendith llcyn.

Jim Cotter died on the afternoon of Wednesday 16 April 2014. His writings and website can be found at: http://www.cottercairns.co.uk


© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. He can be found on Twitter at: @simonbarrow

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